Monday 11 November 2013

Genre: Fantasy and Speculative

By Iola Goulton

Many bookshops have a section called ‘Sci-fi/Fantasy’ or similar, which annoys writers because they see the genres as being quite separate—and they are. What these novels do have in common is the requirement for world-building: the ability of the author to create a credible imaginary world in which the story takes place. This includes developing the physical characteristics of the world (e.g. geography and ecology) as well as the history, culture and religion of the different people groups in the story.

The world might be a long time ago on a faraway planet (Star Wars), it might be a futuristic version of Earth (Star Trek), it might be post-apocalyptic Earth (The Hunger Games) or it might be contemporary Earth but featuring a sub-culture hidden from the rest of us (Harry Potter or Twilight). Each of these require a different type and level of worldbuilding.

This genre isn’t heavily represented in Christian fiction, although publishers like Enclave Publishing and Splashdown Books specialise in what is generally referred to as speculative or visionary fiction. Mainstream publishers such as Thomas Nelson and Wombat Books are producing some titles in this area, suggesting it is a growing market.

Science Fiction

Usually set either on another planet or system (Star Wars), or featuring star-travelling humans in the distant future (Star Trek). Science fiction novels usually feature an adventure plot rather than a romance plot, although there are some exceptions. There is usually a heavy reliance on technology, but the key to a successful sci-fi novel is the same as for any other novel: plot, character and conflict.

There’s not a lot of Sci-fi the Christian market—Kathy Tyers is the only author I know who specialises in this genre, although Christian authors such as CS Lewis and Lynne Stringer write general market sci-fi from a Christian world view.


Fantasy usually has an Earth-like setting. Where a science fiction novel depends on science and technology, a fantasy world often incorporates magical elements (e.g. Lord of the Rings), or mythical creatures (e.g. dwarves, elves and dragons). Technological advancement is often similar to medieval Europe. There are a lot of authors writing Christian fantasy, many of which feature an allegorical romance representing Christ’s love for the church.


Stories featuring vampires, werewolves and other shapeshifters, mermaids, zombies, witches, wizards, or humans with psychic abilities. Paranormal novels tend to be contemporary, and paranormal romance is especially popular. The author needs to define the ‘rules’ of their paranormal society and ensure that characters obey these rules (or face the consequences). There’s probably a little less world-building in a paranormal novel than other genres discussed here, because there are a number of long-standing genre conventions (Stephenie Meyer faced a lot of criticism for not abiding by those conventions with her sparkly vampires).

Paranormal romance (PNR) has been rising in popularity in the general market over the last decade, but predominantly in the general market. It doesn’t usually fit with a Christian worldview. The only examples of PNR I’ve seen in the Christian market are novels like The Widow of Saunders Creek by Tracey Bateman (traditionally-published speculative fiction with a romantic element), Barbara Ellen Brink’s self-published Amish Vampire series (which I haven’t read, so can’t really comment on their Christian element) and the new Amish Vampires in Space from Marcher Lord Press (I admit. I'm tempted to buy this to see how it works).


Stories set on some alternate version of a future Earth. Classic examples include The War of the Worlds, The Day of the Triffids, the Tripods trilogy by John Christopher, and The Running Man by Richard Bachmann (better known as Stephen King). They tend to have an adventure plot, often centred on a chase or survival, and are particularly popular in Young Adult fiction (e.g. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins). Christian authors writing for this market include Jerel Law (Son of Angels) and Krista McGee (Anomaly).


Time Travel

Features the hero, heroine or both travelling back or forward in time, having to adjust to a new way of living. Time travel romance was popularised in the general market by novels such as Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, and Christian authors to have used this plot device include Tamara Leigh and Meredith Resce.

Do you write fiction that requires some level of worldbuilding? How do you describe what you write? What do you feel are the essential ingredients in a novel of this type?

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog.


  1. Another excellent post, Iola. As Angelguard is sometimes deemed Speculative due the "supernatural" element of angels & demons, I often move in circles of readers who have a bent towards many of the sub-genres you mention.

    I don't go in for the paranormal stuff for Christian novels. It's kinda too unbelievable for me, however, I'll happily watch The Walking Dead on Foxtel (which is great TV BTW). Just one of many of my contradictions I guess.

    I think one of the challenges for such authors is being able to create believable 'other-worlds'. LOTR was so descriptive so a reader was able to be transported into Middle Earth but I expect this can be very challenging for fantasy,sci-fi authors: creating a world they've never seen themselves and can only imagine.

  2. Ian, I agree that one of the challenges is creating a believable world. And modern authors have to do that with a lot less description, as most readers aren't prepared to wade through the level of detail Tolkien provided (on the other hand, I've heard George RR Martin will happily spend a few pages detailing the food at a banquet, and he seems to be doing all right!).

    1. Iola, my brother & sister love fantasy novels (mostly secular). They just love the detail. I do to when the story grabs me but it's rare for me to read a 700+ page novel these days.

  3. Iola, thanks for your comprehensive summary. Excellent worldbuilding skills are essential for anyone looking to write in these genres.

    Ian, I've heard demons are popular in the paranormal genre. I wonder if this trend will translate to the Christian market, with more readers interested in reading Christian fiction books with supernatural elements?

    1. Narelle, there is so much paranormal media these days: TV shows (Supernatural, Walking Dead), movies and novels so there definitely is an appetite (no pun intended) for it. I'm kinda hoping that will help boost Angelguard a little, even though it's from a more traditional Christian perspective. However, I think it will take a long time before the core Christian reading community regularly reads such novels.

  4. Yes, thanks for the summary, Iola. That's another good one to bookmark. I enjoy delving into each of these genres at times, as a break from contemporary and historical. I love it when we're successfully drawn in.

  5. Hi Iola

    Thanks for this breakdown of two of my favourite genres.

    I'm writing a fantasy series set in a secondary world - earthlike but not actually earth.

    I love the world building elements (thought obviously character, plot, pacing, dialogue are just as important). I agree that the contemporary preference for fast pace and minimal description (especially in YA) is a challenge. I love description and could happily spend a page of describing the setting but restrain this natural urge - inserting short descriptive as I go along, weaving it in with the action. Imagining the world is not hard as it feels very real to me and over time I've build up details, customs, cultures, geography (loosely based on real locations and cultures I know or have studied).

    BTW where do you think Mike Duran's novels fit in - paranormal but maybe not overtly Christian?

    1. Mike Duran. Hmm. I follow his blog and enjoy the discussions he hosts, but I haven't yet read any of his novels. If he's describing them accurately, they border on horror and that's one genre I've never read. Have you read any? What do you think?

    2. No I haven't. I think you might be right - though supernatural horror and paranormal would have elements in common, I guess.

  6. Sorry if this a repeat comment - as the last one didn't seem to post. If you interested - I've got a short blurb on my first (unpublished) book in the fantasy series I'm writing, as well as a short story and poem set in that world here

  7. Thanks for the great breakdown Iola. I don't normally read fantasy and speculative. I learned a lot from your post.

    There was talk about Amish Vampires in Space at the ACFW conference recently, and I only heard positive remarks. Like you, I'm tempted to read it. You'll probably get to it before I do. Would love to read your thoughts on it.

    1. Dotti, I've heard similarly positive comments on it. I might have to check it out, but oh, there are just so many books to read.

    2. I know!! Let me know what you think when you read it, Ian.


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